If I’m being honest, it’s a bit of an addiction. To me, what could be better than researching a new or used car you want to buy in the USA, flying there and buying it, and then doing a massive road trip across the country?
To top it all off, you ship the car home at the end of the trip and use it whenever you want.
This all sounds too easy, but there are so many traps to watch out for, as we’ve learned over the years. In 2007, we bought a new Dodge Ram 2500 diesel and a new 32-foot 5th wheel RV and spent three months with our kids, traveling across 27 states and clocking up 30,000km.
It was a blast and memories of driving 1,100 miles (1,800km) in a single day are still with me. At the end of that trip, we shipped both the Ram and RV home and began the compliance process, which was a nightmare with changes at the time in heavy-vehicle braking requirements and a whole heap of other stuff, let alone having to spend $28,000 on converting the Ram to right-hand drive.
Still, we were hooked. On other trips to the US, we rented cars, then in 2016 we flew to LA and bought a brand-new Dodge Challenger R/T manual, drove it 8,000km across to New York, and shipped it back. We owned it for four years as per the LHD permit/exemption regulations, and then regretfully, sold it in 2021.
In 2019 we decided we had to do it again, this time fixing a budget of US$5,000. On Craigslist, I found a 2-owner, as-new 1990 C4 Chev Corvette in LA with just 28,000 miles on the clock. We blew our budget on that one, buying the car for a whopping US$7,500. We drove 12,000km across the USA including as much of Route 66 as we could, and you guessed it – we shipped it home.
COVID and lockdowns hit just after we got back from that trip. Three years later and the need is there to go on another car-buying junket; we decided that four years is enough waiting, and we’re heading back in 2023 to do it all over again.
2023 USA Road Trip | $$$
It’s not just compliance you need to consider. Funnily enough, you also need money to do this sort of thing. For that reason, we’re selling our beloved Corvette to help fund the next trip.
Another (new) expense is the Clean Car Programme. Any V8 you import from any country to New Zealand is going to incur a fee, likely $2,875 for a used V8 (and a huge amount more for a new V8). That really hurts. Adding to this new expense is the New Zealand dollar; for our last buying trip, the NZ$ was sitting around 66 cents. In the last few months, it’s been down to 53 cents in the dollar, and as I write this it’s a little higher at 61 cents. We’re desperately hoping that before we buy, the dollar goes a lot higher than that. Every 1-cent discrepancy adds around $1,000 to the total NZ landed cost.
More expense? Shipping costs have almost doubled since our last trip when we paid US$2,700 in shipping, now it’s US$5,300. When you consider that GST is added on to EVERYTHING, that’s another huge increase the buyer has to shoulder.
So for our 2023 USA Road Trip, we’re going to have to be very careful about our car selection. Buying something like a C4 Corvette is not likely to be worthwhile. You might as well just buy one from TradeMe, because unless you want to keep that car forever, it’s going to make it too expensive to import and resell at a later stage, or perhaps if you are prepared to take a loss.
As a test of the landed cost, I created a spreadsheet that in hindsight, was a mistake. In the spreadsheet, I included the exchange rate, car cost, freight, other shipping costs, shipping insurance, import fees, GST, and the Clean Car Fee. To show you how much prices have changed, when we bought then drove then imported our 1990 C4 Corvette in 2019, the car cost US$7,500 and we had the car landed for NZ$15,963. This is pretty close to the approximate calculation you used to be able to do, where you double the purchase price of the car in US$, and then that’s your landed cost in NZ$.
That US$7,500 car would cost around NZ$31,000 landed. Yes, you read it right – the total landed cost has almost doubled. This makes some of those American muscle cars on TM right now quite the bargain.
2023 USA Road Trip | Option 1 – 2000-2002 Pontiac Trans Am WS6
My first choice was a 2000-2002 Pontiac Trans Am WS6. Why? I love the look. Like the previous generation Honda Civic Type R, for a long time the snouty nose of the Trans Am WS6 put a lot of buyers off, but now (and again, like that previous gen Type R) they are seen as cool, retro, and sexy.
I’ve always loved the look of the Trans Am, especially in a manual with the T-tops. It has Chevvy’s amazing LS1 engine mated to a six-speed manual, and even Jay Leno called it “basically a four-seat Corvette”. He has owned one since new.
On the negative side of things, it seems that most WS6s have been heavily modified and if you want compliance when you ship the car home, a non-modded car is the way to go. Then, there’s the price. In the last 12 months, I’ve noticed muscle and classic cars in the USA have gone up hugely. Where I could have picked up a low-mileage WS6 a year ago for US$15K, they’re now around US$25-$35K. With our low dollar and the increased expenses to consider, it would have to be a bargain WS6 for me to be tempted.
One bonus for the WS6 Trans Am is that it’s over 20 years old, so no left-hand drive permit (exemption) is required.
2023 USA Road Trip | Option 2 – 2013-2014 Ford Mustang GT
Another option is the 2013-2014 Ford Mustang GT. Why a Mustang? We’ve crossed the USA in two Dodges and a Chevrolet, perhaps it was time to do it in a Ford V8.
I aimed for the 2013-2014 models as they changed the front of the car at that point, and for me, it’s the best-looking. We can’t import a 2015 or newer Mustang GT as they were sold new here in that year, so if we did import one, we’d have to convert it to right-hand drive and that’s now around $40K. Simply not worth it as it would be far cheaper to buy a brand-new one here.
We could import something special like a Shelby Mustang from 2015 or later and it should be eligible for a LHD permit (as that model wasn’t sold here new) but the prices of those models are well out of our budget.
But like the WS6 Trans Am, Mustang GTs and Mustang GT Premiums are quite expensive, even with over 100,000 miles on the clock, You’re talking US$20K and up, and that’s for a car with a lot of miles on it. Still an option, but not high on the list unless we can find one at a bargain price and ideally with less than 50K miles (80,000 km).
If we purchased a 2014 model, being less than 20 years old we would have to apply for a LHD permit for a Mustang GT. However, many hundreds have been imported so this shouldn’t be an issue. As long as it’s not a V6 or 4-cylinder Mustang, it should be eligible for a LHD permit.
2023 USA Road Trip | Option 3 – 2018 or newer Dodge Charger
Then I came across a photo of a 2018 Dodge Charger RT and it reminded me how great they look. If the WS6 is basically a 4-seat Corvette, then the Dodge Charger is basically a 4-door Dodge Challenger.
I have always admired the modern Dodge Charger at car shows; they look excellent, they sound superb, it has 4 doors, and the huge positive from my wife’s point of view is they have a big boot. It ticks a lot of boxes, and for the boot alone it’s at the top of her list. Sure, we’d love a 1969 or thereabouts Dodge Charger, but they are running at 4 times our current budget in the USA, so they’re not in the running.
In 2018, Dodge standardised lots of features in the Charger, so for me, it’s the one to look for. One of the things to watch for with the Dodge Charger is the models; there are lots of them. At the base is the SXT but these are V6 and would not be eligible for a LHD permit here.
In the V8 range of Chargers, there is the RT, Daytona, Daytona 340, Daytona 392, Daytona Scat Pack, SRT, SRT Hellcat, and Jailbreak – and then there are widebody versions of some models. There’s probably some more I’ve left off that list. Add to that you can add the Plus or Premium pack (or both) to some of those models, while others have either the Plus or Premium pack as standard – confusing!
After some research, it looks like the Daytona is the model to go for, and ideally the Daytona 392. The Daytona has the 370hp Hemi 5.7-litre V8, the Plus and Premium packs are included which means things like heated/ventilated seats, and SatNav – all essential items for a long road trip across the USA. It also has upgraded Brembo 6-piston front callipers, 4-piston rear callipers, Super Trak Pack suspension, and a load of other features. The Daytona 392 has a 475hp 6.4-litre V8. The Daytona 392 could be out of our budget, but we’ll keep researching prices.
But can the Charger get a LHD permit if it’s got 4 doors? In simple terms, yes and no. Here are the conditions for applying for a LHD exemption, your car must meet at least 3 of them:
- The vehicle (or its make, model and submodel) is identified as being a collector’s item in a commercially produced motoring publication.
- The vehicle’s make and model and submodel has been (or was) manufactured in annual volumes of 20,000 units or less.
- The vehicle is, and was manufactured as, a two-door coupe or a convertible.
- The vehicle is, and was manufactured as, a high-performance vehicle.
UPDATE: On talking to a few people who have bought Dodge Chargers, it seems like only the Hellcat version is eligible for a LHD exemption. One guy imported a Daytona model but couldn’t get a LHD permit. Much to my wife’s disappointment, it’s now out of the options list.
2023 USA Road Trip | Criteria
But we can’t be too picky about a car when you are on a budget; with New Zealand compliance regulations, our main aim is to get an unmodified, original car. Any modifications are going to mean a world of pain getting engineer’s reports etc (think mega $$) and the potential to have to strip a car down completely to show what’s underneath. We want it to be easier than that, so unmodified and unrestored are at the top of the list. That’s a good reason to look for a one-owner car – there’s far more chance that’s it not modified in any way.
Second on the list of like-to-haves would be a manual gearbox; while our C4 Corvette is a 2-owner car with just 28,000 miles on the clock, it has the 4-speed automatic gearbox. That’s not the end of the world – and we still bought the car – but shifting gears in a V8 is a very satisfying experience. It also adds to the eventual resale value here in New Zealand. Kiwi buyers love their V8 manuals.
2023 USA Road Trip | Dealer Costs
There are yet more expenses to consider. American car dealers love to put extra costs on car purchases, let alone sales taxes.
In California, where we will be buying our car, the statewide sales tax is 7.25%, and the local and district sales taxes is around 2% for a total of 9.5% to be added to the purchase price. There is also a title fee and ‘documentation fees’ (dealers love that one) and sometimes some other fees and I have no idea what they represent.
We went through the whole horrible process of working with a car dealer when we bought our Dodge Challenger new, and the stories you’ve heard or the scenes you’ve seen in movies are pretty much true; it’s an experience like no other. They are like hungry sharks circling a sinking ship.
In the perfect world, we’ll find our desired car via a private sale on something like Craigslist. Craigslist is like the old Trade and Exchange magazine. Dealers advertise on there and so do private sellers, and it’s where we found our C4 Corvette in 2019. By buying privately, there is no sales tax to pay and no documentation etc fees, so the cost is far lower. Facebook Marketplace is another option.
2023 USA Road Trip | Pre-Purchase Inspection
We will undoubtedly use Kiwi Shipping USA’s pre-purchase inspection services. We used them for our Corvette when Craig Robb from Kiwi Shipping USA went along with a trolley jack to check the car out and took 180 photos. Craig is a car guy and a New Zealander, so he knows all about compliance and WoFs. It’s a real no-brainer to get this done before buying a used car in LA.
Imagine not getting a pre-purchase inspection and importing your car from the USA, to find that you’ve got to spend a bucket load of cash to get it complied. I still remember Craig telling me that 90% of the classic and older muscle cars in the USA he’s asked to look at would never get compliance. There’s a lot of freedom when it comes to modifying or repairing cars in the USA and modified cars will always be a lot harder to get complied.
2023 USA Road Trip | Next Steps
We’re not planning to go to the US until September of this year. For us, it’s the ideal time; not too hot, not too cold, and New England in the fall is a stunning place to be. I still recall driving our Corvette through New England in 2019, with leaves falling from trees in front of us, just like you see in the movies. It is absolutely stunning.
So that means we’ve got what feels like plenty of time to do more car research, then look for the perfect car, and then lock in some options for when we land. We’ll likely rent a car while we go driving around LA, looking at cars we’ve spotted from New Zealand, and hopefully doing a deal. Another option is to purchase a car before we land and store it, then we simply pick it up and drive away. Well, almost. When we did this with our C4 Corvette in 2019, we had to put new tyres on it and service it etc. But it was still less stressful than turning up and having to buy a car in a hurry. That’s where having a pre-purchase service done by a kiwi is gold.
At the moment we’re starting to plan out our route. Here’s our current route, starting in LA and ending up in New York in around 50 days, covering 12,000km.
On the way to New York, this time we’re going to pop up into Canada on the eastern side of the country to go to places like Quebec, Toronto, and Montreal. We’re aiming to drive almost the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Appalachian Mountains, and also head to Detroit since we’ve never been there (my choice).
We’ll leave the car in New Jersey to get it shipped back, fly to Chicago and do the 3-day train trip from Chicago to San Francisco.
So stay tuned, and live your road-trip life through us as we cruise through the USA in our yet-to-be-decided muscle car.
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